Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Adoption versus Maternity Leave

So, with great thankfulness, I am on adoption leave from work whilst our newest addition settles in to the home. It's actually the first time I have taken adoption leave, since the first time we adopted I was already on maternity leave (there is just a six month gap between the boys) - life just kind of continued but there were two babies rather than one. Two nappies to change, two mouths to feed. Two babies to breastfeed, two babies to carry (one on the front and one on the back seemed to work well). Naptimes, bathtimes and bedtimes just involved two rather than one.

This time was a bit different - my youngest had recently turned four. It seems like no time since we spent a chunk of that maternity leave working in rural West Africa. But then I suppose most parents comment on that, just how fast time seems to move.

At work, I have been asked to make some comments on the whole process of adoption leave, to help both those who are going through the process, but perhaps even more so, to guide those who are attempting to support and guide them. Here are some of my initial remarks.

Firstly, there are differences in the preparation and communication surrounding the intended period of leave.

1) The actual policy is virtually word for word the same for adoption and maternity leave, and one can see how a line manager might assume that they are therefore the same. (There are likely to be differences in the fine print - so check your local policies carefully)

2) With a pregnancy, although there is always the uncertainty (there are still 17 stillbirths per day in the UK, and I have a couple of friends who have been through that heartbreak), for most people there are more obvious milestones and timelines. People 'announce' the pregnancy at different stages, but by the third trimester it tends to be physically obvious! In the UK, there is also an obligation to inform your employer by 26 weeks. Pregnancy is more familiar to most people, and they generally have an idea what to do, what to say, how to try and be supportive (although I am sure you can think of examples where this has not been the case!). In contrast, the timelines involved in adoption are very different, and often unpredictable. Some people consider the time when a couple starts the assessment for adoption to be equivalent to the time when a couple starts 'trying' for a baby; it is often a private and personal decision, and there is no inevitable outcome. However, the assessments for adoption can be lengthy, involve multiple interviews, social work assessments, references, medicals, home visits and so forth. Somebody may need time off work for these (and indeed the policy does mention 'reasonable time off' for related appointments) but at the same time, they may be wishing to keep the process private. I suppose a similar example might be a couple undergoing fertility treatment, or suffering recurrent early pregnancy losses with all the related appointments and procedures. It is not just a very personal time, but it can also be tough emotionally; a colleague going through this process might be unexpectedly emotional at times, or seem distracted. Of course if the process is affecting their ability to work, they should be able to talk about things in confidence.

3) Even when a couple are approved as adoptive parents (perhaps the equivalent might be that they have 'conceived'), the timeline is still uncertain, perhaps even more so. Matching can take a very long time, or can be done almost immediately. In our recent experience, we were actually matched with our daughter at panel, so there was no delay at all. I found the biggest challenge was knowing what to tell people when. We were quite honest about the fact we were in the process, but even then some people were taken by surprise when we suddenly had a new child!

4) Matching is where the timeline becomes quite radically different, and where I believe the adoptive parent might need the most support and flexibility. From 'the phonecall' through to the child coming home is usually a period of 1-2 weeks' bonding. That was how it was for a friend in the UK, and for us in East Africa. During that period there are several important things to be accomplished. First of all, this is the time to meet and 'bond' with the child. It is a strange kind of bonding, often under the watchful eye of the social workers. I would see it like passing your driving test - you don't really start the real proper bonding until you are home unsupervised, simply enjoying being together. But it needs to be done. At the same time, the parents might decide this is the time to inform family and friends, not all of whom may have known about the ongoing adoption process. And finally, with only a couple of weeks' notice, the person taking leave needs to wrap up all the loose ends of work, put in place clear plans for ongoing projects and decide approximately how (if at all) they will remain in touch during their leave. I write this from the perspective of a medical academic with several ongoing studies and clinical trials, where I intend to keep things ticking over. Others may choose to take a complete break from work, and it is their prerogative to do so. In either case, it can be quite a challenge to get things straightened out in good time, and for me it involved a whistlestop trip back to the UK to sort a few things out before taking time off.

Once on leave, there are many similarities and it is helpful to remember these, in addition to the subtle differences. These might be of less relevance to an employer, but I think are of interest to anybody who is supporting a friend or relative through this time:

1) The first one is not a difference! The family have just had a new baby! This warrants exactly the same celebrations and congratulations as the arrival of any other new baby. The whole family will be in a time of adjustment, settling into new schedules and routines and getting to know their newest member. If your pattern is to bring a meal for a person with a new baby, then it should be the same with an adopted baby. If you would offer to provide some childcare for the older siblings to allow the parents and new baby time alone, then it should be no different. If you would send a card or a gift, then do the same here. If it would be normal for an email to be sent to colleagues informing them of the good news, then this is the same. To me, this sounds obvious, but my experience has been a bit different. On both occasions I have found myself having to remind people (perhaps even including ourselves!), 'We've just had a new baby!'

2) Bonding and adjustment will take time. This is the same as with any newborn, but depending on the  age of the adopted child, there will be differences in the challenges faced by the adoptive parents. Our new addition sleeps really well, for long periods of time. Whilst that is indeed a blessing, I do not have the luxury of long night feeds which I have always found an amazing time of intimacy with my baby, feeling that we are the only people in the world. The times when she is awake do tend to be the busy family times too, so we need to make a conscious and deliberate effort to focus on her. (This is where help with the older children could be even more useful for a family who have recently adopted)

3) The family will be tired! It is easy (perhaps) to think that because somebody has not gone through a pregnancy and labour, and may not be breastfeeding, that they have no reason to be tired. But remember that this is a 'significant life event' for everybody involved. I need to remind myself of that too - that the other children are a bit hyped up and excitable, but also tired. As parents we have been through the lengthy build up of social work assessments, presentation at panel and then the two week bonding period which was quite difficult in some ways. (Mainly practically difficult with lots of moving around the city, which is not so easy here).

4) It is an emotional time. Again, this is similar to any newborn child! But perhaps adoption brings complications too. Adoption was never the way things were meant to be. There will have been loss along the way, the most obvious one being that the child is separated from their biological parents (through circumstance or death). But the parents may also have been through an tough time emotionally. Some people choose to adopt having been through infertility or miscarriages, and it might not have been a decision that came easily. Adjustment might bring some emotional baggage, and it is good to be aware of this.

5) When a couple say that they have 'adopted', in almost all circumstances there will still be legal processes and hurdles. Depending on the country, and sometimes the age of the child, there is a period of 'fostering to adopt' before the adoption can pass through a court and become final and legal. During this period, there will be continued oversight by social workers, which will vary in its frequency and intensity. It can be intrusive. Whilst almost all adoptions do proceed as planned, we know of several examples where this has not been the case and there is real heartbreak. I do not think there is an ideal way to handle this. If one distances themselves from their child, and makes statements like, 'This is a child we are fostering, and hope to adopt in a year or so', this will greatly impact upon bonding and the family dynamic. So most families welcome the newcomer as with any child. Until I personally became involved with adoptions and saw others go through the process, I did not realise this.

6) Some things are very difficult to discuss. A parent may know quite a lot about the child's background (especially in well resourced countries) but are not at liberty to say. There are some questions which are insensitive. For us, we do not like to use the word 'abandoned' now that the older children might start to understand what it means. It is a cold, horrible word. Instead simply to say that a child 'had no mummy or daddy' is better. The stories of our children are very simple - we know little. Other adoptions are more complicated, some require ongoing contact with biological relatives, others involve medical challenges. I don't think it is wrong to ask questions, but please be understanding if the parent is unable to answer.

7) Relating in part to the comment above, sharing on social media might be a no-no. Don't make assumptions, and if in doubt, ask!

8) One big difference - I ran 10 K yesterday, up and down hills, dodging motorbikes in the humid heat. No chance I could have done that at a week postpartum, it was enough of a problem to walk!

These are just a few initial thoughts about some of the similarities and differences between a person taking adoption leave and a person taking maternity leave. There may well be others - please comment if you can think of some! Others will relate to the personalities of the parents - think of parents of newborns, and how touchy some can get about comments and questions, whereas others love to talk in detail about the minutae of their baby's feeding, sleeping and toilet habits. I imagine it is the same with adoption. Some people are happy to talk openly about everything, whereas others are more private. 


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Congratulations on adopting your baby. Prabhat (husband) and I adopted 30 and 28 years ago and have many happy memories. Regards Heather

    1. Thanks Heather - it's great to hear that you have many happy memories!